A newspaper column begins as a blank page in somebody's typewriter or as an empty screen on a computer terminal - full of unwritten promises. Some 700 words later, more or less, the column ends, sometimes with the unwritten promises partially fulfilled, sometimes not. This is the cycle, as customary to the writer and the reader as the sunrise to sunset cycle of a day, one prescribed day after another.
But then there is that other cycle - the cycle of the years, even the decades.
A column begins - takes its place in a journalistic generation, as if it and that generation presume to go on forever. Yet, sooner or later, the column ends, really ends, as this column is ending, casually and happily, it seems, and very finally on this particular day.
Almost 20 years ago the fledgling columnist did not quite understand what his new designation meant: ``columnist at large.'' Why did he keep thinking of Zero Mostel tiptoeing through a waving field of whimsy? No matter. The new job was certain to clarify itself in a week. A month at the outside.
Almost 20 years later the soon-to-be-ex-columnist still does not understand what ``at large'' signifies. And when a columnist ``at large'' fails to grasp exactly what he is doing, every column is like the first - an exercise in self-definition, fraught with uncertainties.
What a price the columnist - to say nothing of the reader - has had to pay!
Out of fear of repeating himself, the columnist spreads himself thin on subjects of which he is criminally ignorant.
Out of fear of being too portentous - like a clergyman manqu'e - the columnist makes himself too frivolous, like the life of the party trying on a lampshade.
Out of fear of sounding tentative or indecisive, the columnist invents strong opinions as he goes along - the worst form of hypocrisy.
``When I read what I write, I'll know what I think'' - this is every columnist's vocational illusion.
The columnist ``at large'' knows he is not necessary, as journalists bearing the news are necessary, and he can never forget this. Yet he believes a good columnist should be necessary, as good conversation should be necessary to life even if it transacts no business.
And so, at the end, a columnist ``at large'' feels an urge to pass on the family business-that-is-no-business - to keep the conversation going. But - still speaking metaphorically - he would like to pass it on to a daughter rather than a son. Since journalism, like most worlds, is a man's world, women's voices, as voices, are underrepresented, and for a columnist ``at large,'' the voice is everything. Readers who agree should write their congressman - or even the editor.
The one thing a columnist ``at large'' learns about the trade in 20 years is that, in 700 words, there can be no summing up. And so you must imagine what thoughts and feelings occur at this moment. It is the reader's turn to play columnist and write: The End.